Seven Steeples by Sara Baume

Review: Seven Steeples

I wrote this more than a year ago and apparently never published it. So enjoy!

Seven Steeples

Sara Baume

HarperCollins, April 2022, $18.99

How did I get this book? Library

There are many good reasons to read a book where nothing much happens. If your own life has a lot happening, a quiet book can offset the chaos. If your own life doesn’t have a lot happening, a quiet book can show you that this is fine instead of boring. You may have just finished reading a thick tome with ideas as heavy as its physical presence or a trilogy of action-packed fantasy novels, and now you’re looking for a palate cleanser. A sorbet of a book. These are all great reasons to pick up a slender novel, one of fewer than 200 pages, of low stakes and lovely descriptions.

You might also want to pick up a smaller, slower book to interrogate what you think of when you think of a novel. A quiet book without much conflict or character growth or narrative arc will challenge your expectations for story. You’ll find yourself caring about what happens to, say, the two humans and two dogs that occupy the pages of Seven Steeples by Sara Baume. But you won’t find high school English’s greatest thematic hits: no man versus man or man versus god to be found. Maybe a touch of man versus nature, but it’s not so much adversarial as it is the occasional argument. Neither side is really fighting the enemy, or anything else, in this book.

Bell and Sigh, the humans in the book, leave the city and spend seven years living in a small house by the sea in Ireland. It’s set in the modern day; there are occasional references to mobile phones and the internet. The pandemic hovers at the edges of the last chapter. But this book does not proceed at the pace of modern life. The reader takes every walk along with Bell and Sigh and their dogs, Pip and Voss. (“They were not climbers or cragsmen or even hikers. They were dog walkers, at best.”) Baume notes the encroachment of mold and mice, the changing of the seasons, the deterioration and replacement of the impromptu mailboxes.

In a poetic novel like this, not much happens, but even that is described with care:

There would be so much more. And they would see it as soon as practically nothing had

continued to happen for a slightly longer time.

One thing that is hampering my ability to share quotations from this novel with you is the unpredictability of electronic text. I cannot know how you are reading this—on your phone, on your tablet or laptop, on a massive gaming monitor. Do you have the screen zoomed way in, or do you prefer tiny type? It matters in Seven Steeples because it is a, as some reviewers have called it, a long prose poem. There are line breaks used for effect and meaning, but I’m not sure how to make those line breaks work for everyone in this newsletter. I read this as an ebook from the library, and the line breaks there were imperfect because, again, it’s electronic ink. My choice of font and margins is different from another reader’s, and the ebook does its best to accommodate Baume’s line breaks. If you decide to read this book, I recommend a paper copy. However, the language Baume uses is the entire point of reading this work, so I will solider on with this imperfect and unpredictable electronic format.

Seven Steeples releases the reader from the habit of expecting a three- or four-act structure. The reader learns to appreciate the small payoff with every phrase and paragraph rather than waiting for a massive finale. This novel has small surprises but no big twists; it does not acknowledge that spoilers might even be possible. I’ll tell you right now: Bell and Sigh do not climb the mountain for years. It will not diminish your appreciation for this book one tiny bit. The writing fosters appreciation for the intimate rather than setting the reader up for the ever bigger, the ever more fantastical, the ever louder.

Seven Steeples does not get loud, even during massive storms. Compare, for example this passage by Baum:

As the loose gutter loosened, its flapping grew louder. As the weather worsened, its flap-rate increased. It battered like a stressed heart. It didn’t wake them. The house was a ship. They sailed clean through the worsening nights, drifting on the dead sea of their mattress, limbs retracted beneath the lapping duvet. By then they were deaf to the ship and its wind symphonies; to the full range of its tones—of panic, of taunting, of mirth, of the sequence that sounded like a wolf whistle, and of the whistle that seemed to end in a question mark.

and the imagery in Ted Hughes’s poem “Wind,” where “This house has been far out at sea all night” and “the skyline a grimace,/At any second to bang and vanish with a flap.” Bell and Sigh hear their house like an animalistic wolf whistle, while for Hughes the house “Rang like some fine green goblet in the note/That any second would shatter it.”

Since Seven Steeples takes place at the edge of Ireland, readers might expect this to be a novel of nature writing, and it is, but not in the way of most nature writing. It’s domestic, it’s bounded, and it’s nearby. Nature is not something that Bell and Sigh must traveled to; it is in the house, eating the wires, and easily if ironically baited with pink mouse-shaped candy. It is in the ocean and then at the end of the fishing line. It is puddles in the road and escaped cows as much as it is the mountain that can be seen from the window.

Here is a passage that might change your mind about common robins forever:

A robin had claimed ownership of the fuchsia hedge that ran half the length of the east side of the driveway. It scaled the apical branch each dawn, and no matter the severity of the wind, it gripped on with its claws and trilled a melodious warning song—a beautiful, convoluted ballad about the murderous vengeance that would be exacted upon any bird who dared to trespass. The robin of the driveway had murdered in the past. It was prepared for murder.

The humans, the dogs, the house, the landscape, all meld together by the end, some more literally than others. There are hints throughout that Bell and Sigh abandoned their lives in the city completely. Baume makes clear that they have made a choice, and this choice is not without its consequences. It sounds idyllic to be away from a regular life, but it involves sacrifices the majority of people cannot make, like leaving behind friends and family forever. Bell and Sigh note the annual arrival and departure of the families on holiday who have second homes nearby, filled with a hundred unused things that duplicate the hundred unused things they have at home. They are not jealous, and they do not interact with these summer people.

Baume leads the reader through the first flush of this idyllic existence to its cloistered conclusion in two elegant sentences about checking email:

In the beginning, they might have met a week’s worth of missed messages at once. But as time passed, a week yielded no messages at all, then a month, a year—only the tiny, white hand with its index finger lifted, as if checking the wind direction. They forgot their passwords, as they had forgotten the numbers of their old bus routes, and the numbers of their old houses and old streets, and the names of the old pubs where they used to meet, and of their old friends.

Not that they’re isolated or completely alone. They’re friendly with the farmer who lives in the nearest house and bring him a Christmas gift. They still use the internet sometimes. They try to watch TV, but they get terrible reception. They garden and fish, but they also take more trips to the grocery store than they intend to because they make lists and then don’t look at them once they get to the store.

Seven Steeples, like the people in it, is not so secluded as to be out of touch with the rest of the world. But it chooses carefully which tendrils to reach out and which friends to latch onto, however lightly. You can choose to allow Baume, her characters, and their dogs latch onto you for an afternoon or a weekend, depending on how quickly you choose to read. The result, in the best case, is to learn to find the small glimmers of poetry in any life, even one not lived in a small house on the coast of Ireland.

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